PEPPERELL -- Charged with exploring ways in which the town could become more business friendly, the Economic Development Advisory Committee has identified a number of areas on which to focus its efforts, including zoning, what to do about the now closed Peter Fitzpatrick School, and completing a survey of residents to find out what they think of the business climate in town.
Of the three, the survey has been completed, with the committee hard at work sorting through the responses and preparing a final summation for release to the public.
The Economic Development Advisory Committee was appointed by the Board of Selectmen in 2011, which divided responsibility of staffing it with the Planning Board. Members were recruited from small-business owners, industrial, and other commercial establishments in town.
"So that not all the members were people representing downtown businesses who might all have the same agenda," explained John Masiello, a member of the committee and employee of Masy Systems. "Also, John Moak, the town administrator, kind of coordinates the committee. We had our first couple of meetings at Town Hall but all the ones since have taken place at our facility here in Lomar Park because it's always open and it's convenient."
Masiello said one of the first things the committee began working on when the group was first appointed was the survey.
"We did a survey that we had passed out with the census," said Masiello.
The survey itself had some simple multiple-choice questions and room for general comments.
"The committee did a really good job of organizing and meshing all the responses and putting the information onto a chart," said Masiello. "At our last meeting, we talked about the results and fine-tuned them. When we have the final results of the survey, we'll disseminate them to the rest of the town. They've proven very interesting. I think we kind of kept our minds open to whatever answers we got. All you can do is ask questions and try to get as many comments as you can, hoping to reach outside the bandwidth. We got the answers that we wanted but we weren't looking for specific things. Overall though, it sounds like people want jobs, but that's no surprise."
With the results of the survey compiled, committee members must decide what issues to concentrate on first.
"With the information from the survey, we have a general direction to go in but now we have to decide what to do next," said Masiello. "Based on what we've seen, the first thing to do is to get to work on zoning that will make the town economically sustainable. We have a lot of areas that are residential on Main Street which right now is speckled with commercial properties but they're spot zoned. So one of our goals will be to work with town boards to fix that. I think it makes sense to go for more zoning for commercial development on Main Street and the second most important thing is to address the Peter Fitzpatrick School."
Masiello said the town needed to take "the bull by the horns" and make it a goal to change the zoning at the now closed elementary school.
The first problem the committee has to deal with in regards to the school, however, are abutters who have protested the empty building from being used for anything but a school.
"But something needs to be done with it," said Masiello. "The Police and Fire departments don't want it and neither does the Highway Department."
Meanwhile, the town is still responsible to keep the empty building in good repair against the day a decision is finally made what to do with it. Adding to the problem is the possibility that the building might be encumbered by the state due to funding received over the years for maintenance of the facility.
The best solution for the building, a victim of falling student enrollment in the school district, is to convert it to commercial use, but to do that, the property would have to be rezoned for business use. And with such issues as job creation, medical services, and more restaurants having been identified in the survey as businesses that residents would like to see more of in town, uniform zoning of Main Street and Route 111 is something the Economic Development Committee would like to see.
"Right now, where the former Conway Chevy dealership was located on Route 111 is all zoned residential," said Masiello. "That makes it difficult to do anything new there. Meanwhile, on Route 119, we have a gas station whose owners want to sell. Somebody wants to buy it and add a convenience store but they can't do that until they get a variance."
Masiello said that was because zoning along Main Street is not uniform. Rather, it is a patchwork of commercial and residential zones, something that needs to be straightened out in order to make that part of town more attractive to business.
"Doing that would also make abutting property more valuable," reasoned Masiello.
That said, Pepperell is not a town that is unfriendly toward business.
"The town is open to new business," insisted Masiello. "Two or three years ago, we had a tax incentive opportunity between the state and the town, but we weren't in a designated economic development area. We had to go to a neighboring town like Groton to partner with. So that's what we did. We asked Groton if we could be part of their area and they said yes. An agreement was drawn up and at Town Meeting, it was approved unanimously."
Masiello said another, similar economic development issue came up for a vote a few months ago, and that too passed albeit not quite unanimously.
"But it was clearly a majority," Masiello said.
"From a business person's perspective, the more business you have in town, the more tax revenue you collect," said Masiello, noting that Pepperell maintained the same tax rate for both residential and commercial property. "There would be a better return for the town if we got more businesses to come here. It's simple economics, and it makes sense. Business right now is not being held back in town, but the committee just wants to evaluate the situation."
To sum up, once the committee has finished collating the information gained from its survey, Masiello said members plan to move quickly to tackle zoning issues relating to Main Street and Route 111 and what to do about the Peter Fitzpatrick School.